Leave the bottle, take the ballot l Chuck’s World

By Chuck Sigars | Nov 07, 2018

Every week, I write this column, fold it up, shove it into a bottle, and toss that bottle as far as I can into Puget Sound. And every week, some guy in a uniform writes me a citation for littering.

Here’s my point: I write at a certain time. Often I write during uncertain times, which is a different kind of column, but I’m on a schedule here. You, on the other hand, are not.

There’s nothing I have to say that you have to read immediately, or even at all. You can take your time, which is why I sometimes get emails about columns I’ve written weeks before, by which time I’ve forgotten what I wrote and how to spell some of the words.

I still appreciate the feedback, but I get the distinct impression that it washed up on a beach somewhere, completely removed from time and context.

All of this is my way of saying that the midterm elections are over. This is not a column about voting in 2018, or the need to vote, or an urge to vote. The barn door is closed and the horse is over the hill.

Although I did vote.

People seem very concerned this year about their friends voting, which I understand but didn’t quite work for me. I turned 18 about 100 days before a presidential election, and I haven’t stopped voting since. I really like voting.

And while I have a little nostalgia for those November days when I’d walk down to the elementary school, then eventually the fire station, to chat with the nice volunteers who would look up my name while singing the alphabet song under their breath, trying to remember where “S” comes, I don’t miss it.

Filling out ballots as a family, sitting around the kitchen table, actors in a community theater production of representative democracy, is better than a sticker on my shirt.

I should note that, at the time of this writing, I don’t know any election results. Something bad might have happened, or something good, and probably both.

And while I tended to roll my eyes at the numerous Facebook (and other) posts I’ve read over the past few months, urging me to register to vote (I took care of it four decades ago, thanks), I can appreciate the enthusiasm. There’s a lot of passion there, and that feels good.

It’s just that a lot of it’s uninformed passion. This is where democracy gets dicey. The birthright we should all share, our privilege of governing ourselves, is a shaky franchise when our information is bad.

And a lot of it is bad, as we now know.

A recent article I read tried to make the point that the disinformation that’s been swamping our news for the past few years is less about pesky Russians interfering (although they definitely have been playing the game) than legitimate news organizations, mostly on cable, that repeat it on a loop.

It certainly makes people watch. It often makes them believe, unfortunately.

The late, great Washington journalist Jack Germond, who commented often that he appeared as a pundit on television to pay for his daughter’s college education, had a keen eye on this process, understanding that political pundits had become the television equivalent of carnival barkers, saying whatever it takes to get you in the door.

“The problem is that we aren't paid to say 'I don't know' so we have to say something even when we don't know," he famously commented on his prominent side gig, but he was even more on point:

“Unsurprisingly, the poll-takers don't talk a lot in public about the ignorance of the electorate on political and public policy matters. And the politicians are not going to disclose the, let's say, limited body of knowledge in their constituencies. You don't get elected calling your voters airheads.”

But they are. You know this, if you’re interested in civics and pay attention. I wish I could say these weren’t my people, the people who share my general feelings and concerns about the way our country is run, but some of them are. Out of several hundred Facebook friends, I’m guessing at least half of them have no business casting a vote.

They’d be better off buying a lottery ticket; I have a feeling more thought goes into this.

This is the democracy conundrum. Choices are offered and encouraged, and I get the sense that a lot of voters cast their ballots the way I used to try to win a stuffed animal at the fair for one of my kids. I threw something and hoped it hit something important.

And I’m aware that I may be weighting social media far more than it deserves. I certainly know brilliant, informed people in my sphere who know exactly what’s at stake, and have careful, considered opinions that inform us, including me.

I remain optimistic, actually.

The world has a million problems, primarily our climate but also genocide and famine and oppression, and yet we’re more peaceful than at any time in recorded history. Lives are being extended, tentatively and widely unfairly, but things are getting better.

And I’m willing to believe that we’ll straighten this out, learn to judge between real and the fantasy, understand implications and choose accordingly.

Also, if you find a bottle washed up on the beach, and this column is inside, there’s bound to be another election soon.

I have a feeling democracy still has some miles on it.

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